Few people swam Sunday in the waters off Mountain View Park, the Lake Lanier cove that claimed the lives of a father and son from Lawrenceville the evening before.
Jose Alfredo Benitez, 40, drowned in the lake Saturday as he tried to save his 14-year-old stepson, Carlos Amaya.
Both of their bodies were found within yards of each other, some 35 feet under the water’s surface, just as dark fell over the lake.
It was the first reported drowning in Lake Lanier this year, several weeks before the official start of the summer season in a warmer-than-normal spring.
Emergency officials, who endured an “unprecedented number” of drownings in the lake last year, hope Saturday’s drowning isn’t an indicator of what’s to come this year.
On Saturday evening, Amaya and a teenage brother had set out to swim from the shore at Mountain View Park to an island some 60 to 80 yards away, said Chad Black, a battalion chief with Hall County Fire Services.
Amaya’s brother reached the island safely.
When he got to his feet, he saw his brother struggling in the water, Black said.
Benitez, back on the shore of the park, was already headed out to help, leaving another teenage daughter on the shore.
It’s hard to tell what happened after that. The brother told rescuers that maybe Benitez was trying to push Amaya out of the water. But then they both disappeared.
“It’s just a heartbreaking situation,” Black said. “The daughter was still on the other side, and you could see where the father had pulled off his shorts, shirt and shoes, still laying there on the shore,” Black said.
Cold water could have been to blame for Amaya’s struggle midtrip. While temperatures crept into the mid-80s Saturday, Lanier’s water was about 20 degrees behind.
“(The water) will shock your body almost instantly,” said Capt. Jason Shivers with the Forsyth County Fire Department, which assisted Hall County Fire Services’ dive team with Saturday’s search for the victims. “If you’re not a strong experienced swimmer, that cold water shock will prove to be deadly. It is still just too cold to get into.”
The steep drop-off in the underwater terrain also could have been a factor. Black said rescuers trying to map out the area for their search Saturday night only made it 10 feet beyond the Mountain View Park shoreline before the terrain “completely dropped off.”
And it could have been that 14-year-old Amaya underestimated the distance to the island.
“That is a fairly common underlying theme that we see in some of our drownings — that people will overestimate their swimming ability or underestimate the distance,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, the public information officer for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. “That just sometimes leads to disaster.”
Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said people often have a hard time judging their swimming abilities.
“So many people swim in a pool and they consider themselves good swimmers,” Kimbrell said. “If you get tired in a pool, you only have to go 10 feet to get to the side and hold on and catch your breath. But when people start swimming across the lake, any number of things could happen. You could get a cramp ... there’s no place for you to hold on and you’re in trouble.”
And it is also common for those swimming to help someone in a panicked state — like a drowning victim — to get pulled under water and drown, causing two fatalities, Kimbrell said.
“A lot of times, if you make it to someone, they will actually push you under,” he said.
Bystanders heard a young boy screaming for help around 6:30 p.m. Saturday and called 911, Black said. Rescuers pulled the two bodies out of the water at about 8:30 p.m., just as they were about to call the search off for the night.
“Unfortunately, we’ll never know,” exactly what happened in the water, said Black.
But Hall emergency responders are hoping to prevent it from happening often this year.
Last year, Hall County responded to some 14 or 15 drownings on the lake, Kimbrell said. The agency had planned to launch a drowning prevention program in the coming weeks, said Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle.
Typically, area public safety agencies start gearing up around Memorial Day for the summer lake season, Shivers said.
“We didn’t expect anything like this to happen this soon,” said Cagle.
Saturday’s drowning has the agency in “high speed” to get out the word about the hazards of drowning on Lanier, Cagle said.
Already, the county agency has purchased two wave runners that Kimbrell said will be used to warn at-risk swimmers. Since budget cutbacks have slimmed the agency’s staff, the wave runner program is currently volunteer only, meaning emergency personnel will have to donate their time to the prevention cause.
“I’m going to try to spend a good bit of time out there this summer,” Kimbrell said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Lanier and many of its shoreline parks, tries to warn swimmers of the risks even though park rangers can’t be present all the time.
While the shore at Mountain View Park was nearly desolate, there were swimmers and picnickers enjoying the water at Little Hall Park on Sunday afternoon.
Near the park’s beach, the corps had hung a number of life jackets on a rack for swimmers to use below a sign that warned parents “children don’t float.”
Not far from the sign, Mark Wiedenmann played with his nearly 1-year-old son in hip-deep water.
Mark’s father, Fred Wiedenmann, who prepared to fish in the lake nearby, said he always made sure his kids could swim. If the family was in a boat on the lake, he always made sure everyone was wearing life jackets, he said.
“I’m real cautious — with the kids, especially,” said Wiedenmann. “It’s unfortunate that the father and son died (Saturday). ... That happens a lot. People try to swim to these islands and they can’t make it. It looks closer than it really is.”
At the park’s gate, a corps ranger handed out orange flyers depicting a life jacket and words of caution.
“Warning!!! People have drowned in Lake Lanier!” the message reads. “Wear your life jacket. Watch your children. Never swim alone.”
But because Mountain View Park is now little more than a boat ramp, there were no such signs and no such corps rangers to warn Amaya and Benitez to wear a life preserver in the water Saturday.